Infrastructure & Environment

The Top 13 U.S. Transportation Stories of 2013

The highlights included a new transportation secretary and big funding hikes at the state level.
December 17, 2013
US Route 127, in Lansing, Michigan Wikimedia Commons

Anthony Foxx Confirmed as Transportation Secretary

After months of speculation, President Obama nominated Anthony Foxx, then the mayor of Charlotte, N.C., to succeed Ray LaHood as transportation secretary. The pick was a surprise: the Washington rumor mill initially assumed then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would be the pick, then the focus turned to U.S. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman. In the end, the president went with Foxx,  citing his experience leading the push for new street car and light rail lines as well as an airport expansion in his city. In June, the Senate confirmed him 100 to 0.

Six States Enact Big Revenue Increases

Aware of serious transportation needs and stagnant funding from the feds, half a dozen states -- including Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Wyoming and Massachusetts -- made major overhauls to their transportation taxes that will ensure billions of dollars in new revenue for infrastructure. Many of those states, mindful of the financial hurdles that come with a gas tax that isn't indexed to inflation, enacted reforms to ensure the tax grows over time. That should help prevent them from facing perpetual debates about the tax. Their action may be a signal to the feds, who will have to solve the question of funding in 2014 when the federal highway bill, MAP-21, is set to expire.

New York, Chicago Unroll Bike Share

As bike share programs have gained traction throughout the United States, the absence of major programs in two of the country's most populous cities seemed glaring. This spring, after delays in both cities, the programs finally went online in New York and Chicago. In New York, the bike stations were greeted by some with grumbles that they were unattractive and obstructed sidewalks. But the programs have proven to be a hit. Since its launch, CitiBike riders in New York have made nearly 5.9 million trips. Meanwhile, the Divvy bike share program in Chicago is slated to become the largest in North America once it opens additional stations in the suburbs next year.

More Setbacks Threaten California High-Speed Rail

Since its inception, the controversial high speed rail program in California has been mired by controversy. Critics have alleged that its leaders use overly optimistic ridership projections, are planning an inefficient route, and don't have a plan in place on how to actually pay for it. Federal regulators recently rejected a request from rail leaders to exempt part of the project from a lengthy environmental review. Meanwhile, in November, a judge blocked the sale of $8 billion in rail bonds that were approved by voters in 2008, pointing out questions about the project's funding plan.

1-5 Skagit River Bridge Collapse

The bridge, about 60 miles north of Seattle, collapsed in May when a truck carrying an oversized load tried to cross it and struck part of its supports. There were no fatalities, but the incident brought attention to the condition of the country's infrastructure, and in particular, the questionable condition of many older bridges, since the crossing was classified as "functionally obsolete." But as Governing reported at the time, transportation officials had not considered the bridge to be in especially poor shape. Instead, they were more interested knowing how and why the truck tried to follow a route that was inappropriate for its large load.

Public-Private Partnerships Survive Legal Challenges in Virginia

Virginia has long been the U.S. epicenter of the movement toward public-private partnerships to finance transportation infrastructure. So a high-profile lawsuit generated big interest in the transportation community when a judge ruled that tolls on a Norfolk-area project were technically taxes, not user-fees, and the state had illegally deferred its power to tax to a private-sector operator. P3 supporters worried that may have threated the future of similar projects in the state. But this fall, the state supreme court rejected that line of thinking and overruled the lower court, ensuring those types of projects will go forward.

Columbia River Crossing on Life Support

The joint mega project between Washington state and Oregon would have replaced the existing bridge between Portland and the suburb of Vancouver, Wash., in addition to rebuilding surrounding highway exchanges, extending light rail across the river, and improving pedestrians paths. Supporters had touted it as an economic invested, citing the $40 billion of freight that crosses the existing span annually that's increasingly held up by congestion. The project won approval from Oregon, but this summer, the legislature in Washington rejected funding for it, effectively killing the CRC despite years of planning. Some supporters have held  out hope that there's a way Oregon can go at it alone, but that may be a challenge.

US Airways and American Airlines Merge

In February, U.S. Airways and American Airlines announced an $11 billion merger to create the world's largest airline. The plan drew criticism from consumer advocates concerned with a shrinking number of players in the airline industry, citing the United-Continental merger in 2010; the Southwest-AirTran merger in 2010; and the Delta-Northwest merger in 2008. The Justice Department initially worked to block the deal, arguing it would mean less competition and thus higher fares for passengers. But the suit was ultimately settled in November as part of a deal in which the merged airline gives up space at Washington's Reagan National Airport, which it otherwise would have dominated, as well as several other major airports, in order to make room for other carriers.

Driverless Vehicles Technology Gains Steam

Long thought of as science fiction, driverless vehicles continued to gain traction in 2014. Several automakers suggested they'd have a driverless vehicles available to consumers by the end of the decade; the exploits of Google's driverless vehicles continued to make headlines; and Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, even took a spin in an autonomous car. Policy leaders say the states -- and maybe the feds -- will need to answer a slew of questions about liability and traffic enforcement before the technology becomes widespread.

Tunneling Begins on Alaska Way Viaduct

Seattle has spent more than a decade trying to figure out what to do with the Alaskan Way Vaiduct, an elevated highway that skirts the edge of downtown. Ultimately, officials opted to embark on a $3.1 billion project that will ultimately remove the viaduct and replace it with an underground tunnel. The decision of whether or not to tunnel has long been a controversial one in Seattle, but this summer, the 7,000-ton "Bertha" tunnel-boring machine began digging underground, finally setting the stage for a projected 2015 completion date.

Construction Starts on Ohio Rivers Bridges Project

The $2.6 billion project the project entails rebuilding a highway interchange and completing two new bridges across the Ohio River between Louisville and Southern Indiana. Work on those spans began this summer more than ten years after the project was announced. But the endeavor has been controversial, with critics complaining about the project's tolls and its environmental impact. The bridges are slated to open in 2016.

Crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214

The Boeing 777, en route from South Korea, crashed as it approached San Francisco International Airport in July. Three people died, including one person who reportedly survived the crash but was killed after being struck by a firetruck responding to the scene. That situation prompted retraining of airport firefighters. It also sparked debate about whether pilots had become over-reliant on the automated systems that run airplanes, since the pilots had trouble landing without the use of a "glideslope indicator" that was out of service and may have misunderstood whether the plane's "autho thrust" was engaged. NTSB officials initially said they didn't find mechanical problems with the plane. But recently, the pilots and the airline have reportedly questioned that notion, suggesting the autothrottle might have disengaged on its own.

Metro-North's Derailments in Connecticut, Spuyten Duyvil

In May, a Metro-North commuter train connecting New York City to Connecticut derailed and collided with a train traveling in the opposition direction during even rush hour, injuring more than 70 riders. In December, Metro-North would again face tragedy, this time with fatal results, when a Metro-North derailed in the Bronx. That accidenet killed four and injured more than 70. The train's engineer said he was in a "daze" in the moments leading to the accident, when it was reportedly traveling at 82 mph through a curve that had a 30 mph limit. Federal officials have announced a massive review of Metro-North's operations and safety culture in the wake of those accidents.

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